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However, if the magnetic field weakens enough or temporarily disappears during the flip, then the Earth could be hit with dangerous amounts of solar radiation and cosmic rays. The exposure could mean that more people develop cancer, Renne said, though there's no scientific proof this could happen.
Another doomsday hypothesis about a geomagnetic flip plays up fears about incoming solar activity. This suggestion mistakenly assumes that a pole reversal would momentarily leave Earth without the magnetic field that protects us from solar flares and coronal mass ejections from the sun. But, while Earth's magnetic field can indeed weaken and strengthen over time, there is no indication that it has ever disappeared completely. A weaker field would certainly lead to a small increase in solar radiation on Earth – as well as a beautiful display of aurora at lower latitudes - but nothing deadly. Moreover, even with a weakened magnetic field, Earth's thick atmosphere also offers protection against the sun's incoming particles.
The science shows that magnetic pole reversal is – in terms of geologic time scales – a common occurrence that happens gradually over millennia. While the conditions that cause polarity reversals are not entirely predictable – the north pole's movement could subtly change direction, for instance – there is nothing in the millions of years of geologic record to suggest that any of the 2012 doomsday scenarios connected to a pole reversal should be taken seriously. A reversal might, however, be good business for magnetic compass manufacturers.
Electrical devices and satellites
The March 1989 geomagnetic storm caused the collapse of the Hydro-Québec power grid in a matter of seconds as equipment protection relays tripped in a cascading sequence of events. Six million people were left without power for nine hours, with significant economic loss.
Satellite hardware damage
Geomagnetic storms and increased solar ultraviolet emission heat Earth's upper atmosphere, causing it to expand. The heated air rises, and the density at the orbit of satellites up to about 1,000 km (621 mi) increases significantly. This results in increased drag on satellites in space, causing them to slow and change orbit slightly. Unless Low Earth Orbit satellites are routinely boosted to higher orbits, they slowly fall, and eventually burn up in Earth's atmosphere.
Skylab is an example of a spacecraft reentering Earth's atmosphere prematurely in 1979 as a result of higher-than-expected solar activity. During the great geomagnetic storm of March 1989, four of the Navy's navigational satellites had to be taken out of service for up to a week, the U.S. Space Command had to post new orbital elements for over 1000 objects affected, and the Solar Maximum Mission satellite fell out of orbit in December the same year.
The vulnerability of the satellites depends on their position as well. The South Atlantic Anomaly is a perilous place for a satellite to pass through.
As technology has allowed spacecraft components to become smaller, their miniaturized systems have become increasingly vulnerable to the more energetic solar particles. These particles can cause physical damage to microchips and can change software commands in satellite-borne computers.
Another problem for satellite operators is differential charging. During geomagnetic storms, the number and energy of electrons and ions increase. When a satellite travels through this energized environment, the charged particles striking the spacecraft cause different portions of the spacecraft to be differentially charged. Eventually, electrical discharges can arc across spacecraft components, harming and possibly disabling them.
Bulk charging (also called deep charging) occurs when energetic particles, primarily electrons, penetrate the outer covering of a satellite and deposit their charge in its internal parts. If sufficient charge accumulates in any one component, it may attempt to neutralize by discharging to other components. This discharge is potentially hazardous to the satellite's electronic systems.
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